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What's the big deal about trousers? You put them on (one leg at a time, as the saying goes). Zip 'em up. And head out the door, right?

That's fine, until the authorities begin handing out pants penalties. When that happens, things could get ugly.

Trousers too short? Punishment will include having to stand in front of a crowd of laughing, finger-pointing 14-year-olds.

Pants riding too low? Fifty ab crunches . . . now.

Wide wales in July? A weekend restricted to boxers should cool you off.

OK, so wearing flood pants never got anyone arrested. But it never helped a guy to be taken seriously, either.

Clowns wear flood pants. And people laugh at clowns, remember?

There's another reason to brush up on your trouser skills. Trousers are really happening right now, say those in the clothing biz.

"Trousers have become a very important part of the deal. Not too long ago, trousers were just trousers, and you wore a blue blazer and gray flannels," said Tom Barnett, who runs a local custom-made gentlemen's clothing business called Tom Barnett Direct.

"But things have changed dramatically in menswear, with dress-down Fridays and guys wearing more mix-and-match things. Guys are wearing really great textured trousers and a really fantastic shirt and a really great coat that no one would have put together many years ago," he said.

Well, some guys, anyway. Others are still deciding if they're ready for pleats.

The good news here is that help is on its way. Following is some advice that will save all men from trouser trauma.

Long or short?

When it comes to the proper length of pants, it is important to remember that the issue is a thorny one -- ranking right up there with money and in-laws as Reasons Couples Fight.

"The women always say, 'Make them a little longer' and the men always say, 'Do them a little shorter.' This is a fairly universal thing," said Alan Kurtzman, from the New York Store in Lancaster.

Mediators offer this rule of thumb: Trouser bottoms should touch the top of the shoe with a bit of a break.

Curious, too, are those men walking around in pants with one leg hemmed shorter than the other.

Explanation, please?

"Most men have one hip that's higher than the other," said Bernard John Huber, from O'Connell Lucas Chelf.

If the fitter or tailor knows his way around a measuring tape, that shouldn't happen.

As for cuffs, most experts recommend them.

"We have always suggested cuffs. We believe it finishes off a garment. The trousers drape better, look better, are more correct. We give anyone the opportunity to choose what they want -- and then we put cuffs on them anyway," Barnett said.

As for the waistband, it should be noted that wearing pants under one's armpits is not acceptable -- unless you happen to answer to the name Lou Costello, Eddie Haskell or Barney Fife.

The proper position for a man's pants waist varies slightly depending on whom you talk to. "Dress for Success" author John T. Molloy says that the proper position is slightly above the navel.

Others suggest a smidgen lower.

"It should be right above the hip bones -- just below the naval," said Aldo DiVincenzo, of Aldo's Uomo in Amherst.

Tim Hare, from Riverside Men's Shop, agrees. "In the best of all worlds, you want your pants to comfortably stay right below the navel -- with the pleats flat and closed," he said.

Snappy solution

Where a good pair of dress trousers does not belong is pulled down around the hips, below -- how shall we say this tactfully? -- a protruding stomach.

Solution: Send out the suspender.

"I wish more men would wear suspenders, because the trousers fit better with them," Huber said.

Suspenders keep the trousers positioned correctly at the waistline -- rather than slipping downward-ho -- and their cuffs positioned correctly on the shoes.

Yet the transition from belt to suspenders isn't an easy one, warns Riverside's Hare.

"Like Scotch, suspenders are an acquired taste," he said.

Ideally, suspenders should be securely fastened inside trousers by means of buttons sewn into the waistband, rather than clipped on.

Pleats vs. flat fronts

Many experts prefer pleats -- even though the fashion industry has promoted plain fronts the past few seasons.

"When you have flat-front trousers, you don't get the same drape you get with pleats. Pleats allow you more fabric in the front, a better drape, a better style all the way around -- not only in my opinion but truly the way they fit the human body," Barnett said.

"Double pleats are by far the most popular. A more conservative man wears a single pleat; a kid who wants a little bit more of an updated fashion will wear three," he said.

And those are reverse pleats, by the way, as opposed to forward pleats -- which tend to burst open.

"The double-reverse pleat is the most flattering for a male -- a deep pleat that opens gently," he said.

Other trouser tips

Remember that the top half of your body belongs with the bottom half -- and the clothes you wear on both should relate. If you wear casual cords in the fall, add a flannel shirt -- not a fine dress shirt.

Beefy cords need to take the summer off. And seersuckers and linens should be retired after Labor Day.

If you like to wear light-colored pants in the summer, remember that the world is not really interested in the pattern on your boxers. Lining does wonders.

You don't have to be a third-generation tailor to know the difference between good construction and poor construction. Turn trousers inside out and examine the seams.

When buying trousers, remember that the seat of the trouser -- and how it fits -- is very important. It determines how the front looks.

Casual (or sport) pants differ from dress pants. The latter feature more distinctive "findings" -- such as linings, better-gauge zippers, greater variety of rises, unfinished hemlines, etc. Casual trousers offer fewer findings, "but can still be sewn together beautifully," Hare said.

"Same church, different pew."

When buying a finished pair of casual pants, if 34-inch trousers are too tight and 36-inch too baggy, find a store that stocks 35-inch trousers. Or find a store that would be happy to tailor them for you.

Finally, while we have nothing against dogs, spouses and football buddies, remember that when it comes to dressing well, a full-length mirror can truly be your best friend.

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